Q. Every morning, I throw away the plastic bags that cover newspapers. I see the triangle recycling sign with number 4 on the bag, but local waste collection service does not collect them for recycling.  If these plastic bags cannot be collected as recyclables, why do they have the recycling sign? - Sammy, NJ

A. While Number 4 (LDPE) plastic bags can indeed be recycled (hence the recycling symbol), it’s not all that easy to find a recycler that will do it -- as you’ve found, Sammy. Plastic bags are some of the hardest things to recycle, says Darby Hoover, senior resource manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Not only do they fly away easily and jam machinery, but it also takes a seemingly infinite number of bags to accumulate a decent-size load. So a lot of recyclers just draw the line at the ubiquitous Number 2 grocery bags, and leave those less common Number 4s blowin’ in the wind (or buried in the landfill).

But that doesn’t mean you have to keep throwing them away. It’s worth checking the plastic bag collection bins at your local grocery store (in New Jersey, Acme, Stop and Shop, and Wal-Mart stores have them) to see which types they accept. It can vary from store to store, but some do take Number 4s. Even if you find a collection spot though, keep in mind that reusing your plastic newspaper bags is actually preferable to recycling, when you do the whole cost-benefit-analysis. Think about it: preventing a new item from being manufactured in the first place saves more energy and resources than recycling one.

Which begs the question: what can you do with all those skinny little bags?  Two words for you: POOPER SCOOPER. “I don’t even have a dog, but I save them up for friends who do. I actually have people fighting over them,” says Hoover.

Don’t count any dog owners among your friends? There are tons of other ways to use the bags. Are you a fitness fanatic? Braid a string of them into a jump rope. Domestic god? Slip them on before doing dishes to prevent the dreaded dishpan hands. Cheapskate? Create the world’s least fashionable rain boots by slipping them over your shoes and securing the tops with a rubber band. Sandwich aficionado? Use them as lunch sacks for sandwiches or other snacks. Even if you can’t manage to find a use for all 365 of the little buggers each year, you’ll make a huge dent in the mountain of plastic if you make it a personal goal of yours, and get creative. Let us know what you come up with!

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008